Two [p]reviews I read this week certainly met that objective. The Rhode Island School of Design's exhibition 'What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, from 1960 to the Present' sets out to present an alternate history of the visual arts in America over the past 50 years, one that is funnier, livelier, more niche, more figurative, more unsettling. From the RISD website:
What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present proposes an alternate history of figurative painting, sculpture, and vernacular image-making from 1960 to the present that has been largely overlooked and undervalued. At the heart of What Nerve! are four mini-exhibitions based on crucial shows, spaces, and groups in Chicago (the Hairy Who), San Francisco (Funk), Ann Arbor (Destroy All Monsters), and Providence (Forcefield)—places outside the artistic focal point of New York. These moments are linked together by six influential or intersecting artists: H. C. Westermann, Jack Kirby, William Copley, Christina Ramberg, Gary Panter, and Elizabeth Murray.
All of these artists ran against the modernist grain and its emphasis on theory. Rather than distancing their art through irony or institutional critique, the artists in What Nerve! seized imagery and ideas from vernacular sources as diverse as comics and pottery, pulling and reshaping material from their environments to tackle a variety of subjects with equal doses of satire and sincerity. What Nerve! looks at their distinctive idioms, shown in works that are often earnest, sometimes narrative, frequently transgressive, and always individualistic.An article on Huffington Post piqued my interest, but Ken Johnson's review in the NYT blew it up. It's an incredibly satisfying read, that opens with a brio (with a brio that makes me want to use the word 'brio', even) that matches my perception of the energy of the show.
The brio, however, is fueled by another life force, and it's this source that has been my real revelation. Johnson frames What Nerve using a dichotomy coined by film critic Manny Farber in 1962 in an essay titled 'White Elephant Art and Termite Art'. Johnson writes:
In 1962 the film critic Manny Farber published the provocative essay “White Elephant Art and Termite Art,” in which he distinguished two types of artists: the White Elephant artist, who tries to create masterpieces equal to the greatest artworks of the past, and the Termite, who engages in “a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor” that “goes always forward, eating its own boundaries and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.”
While White Elephant artists like Richard Serra, Brice Marden, Jeff Koons and a few other usually male contemporary masters still are most highly valued by the establishment, the art world’s Termite infestation has grown exponentially. They’re everywhere, male and female, busily burrowing in a zillion directions. They’re painting, drawing, doodling, whittling, tinkering and making comic books, zines, animated videos and Internet whatsits — all, it seems, with no objective other than to just keep doing whatever they’re doing.
Farber's essay is one of the most fun things I have read in a long time. Largely about film, it opens with an attack on exactly the names What Nerves deviates from:
The special delight of each painting tycoon (De Kooning’s sabrelike lancing of forms ; Warhol’s minute embrace with the path of illustrator’s pen line and block-print tone, James Dine’s slog-footed brio, filling a stylized shape from stem to stern with one ungiving color) is usually squandered in pursuit of the continuity, harmony, involved in constructing a masterpiece. The painting, sculpture, assemblage becomes a yawning production of overripe technique shrieking with preciosity, fame, ambition; far inside are tiny pillows holding up the artist’s signature, now turned into mannerism by the padding, lechery, faking required to combine today’s esthetics with the components of traditional Great Art.
But it's this phrase that I know I'll keep returning to, the one that sums up this relentless, burrowing, wonderful 'termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art':
The best examples of termite art appear in places other than films, where the spotlight of culture is nowhere in evidence, so that the craftsman can be ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it.